James 2:14-16: Faith without works is dead: Reconciling James and Paul


‘The Bible is full of contradictions’ is one of the many things that unbelievers throw in our faces. My standard response is, ‘Show me one.’ This usually calls their bluff and reveals that they are only repeating things they have heard and using them conveniently as arguments but have no proof. It reveals an unwillingness to believe the truth and a willingness to believe anything against Christianity. And it also reveals a basic faith commitment to believing things without proof, which contradicts the naturalistic approach they supposedly disprove Christianity with. However, one of the things that some have pointed out is that Paul and James contradict each other about justification by faith. Paul clearly teaches that we are justified by faith apart from works in Romans 3:28, but James appears to state the opposite, in 2:24. Not only that Paul claimed that Abraham was justified by faith, Romans 4:1-8, but James claims he was justified by works James 2:21. Added to this we see that Paul quotes Gen. 15:6 as the point when Abraham was justified, but James quotes the same verse and joins it to Gen. 22, which is 25 years later.

I hope to untangle this traditional knot for us. It is most important that we do for the gospel is at stake and we learn to be sensitive readers of the Scriptures through it. Firstly, here are our starting assumptions. We all have assumptions, I want to make mine plain, this way you can test your own assumptions and see whether you are carrying baggage which prejudices you from accepting the direction we are taking. Our first assumption is that the writings of both James and Paul are part of the inerrant word of God. We will not take the easy out that Luther took when in assessing James for inclusion in his translation he wrote, ‘In sum: the gospel of St. John, St Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the epistle of James is an epistle of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.’1 Luther was used by the Lord is certain things but erred in many others, this is one of those things. We believe that he was not patient enough to read them in harmony. Secondly, we believe that there is a particular historical background to the situation that accounts for the way James phrases himself. We know from Paul’s writings that there were many who thought that he was advocating forgiveness apart from holiness. Romans 3:8 is an example of those who put false words in Paul’s mouth thinking that a doctrine of free grace was an invitation to sin, ‘And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.’ We see again after the statement of God’s abounding 1 Barclay, p7. grace in Christ towards sin apart from works in Romans 5:20 Paul anticipates an objection about holiness Romans 6:1, ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?’ It appears that there were many who misunderstood grace and constantly felt that works needed to be hitched to the gospel or else holiness was out the window. We see that Paul does not need to make justification by works because God overcomes the sin in us by our participation in Christ’s resurrection when we are born again. God secures our holiness not by changing the gospel of grace to a gospel of works but by giving us a new heart and overcoming the power though not the presence of sin, that by the given indwelling Spirit we can now put sin to death. I agree with those commentators who see James responding to an abuse of Paul’s gospel. There were obviously those who did use the message of free grace as an invitation to sin and it appears that they argued they were saved by faith alone, hence James’s use of the phrase in 2:24. James is not disagreeing with Paul but a misunderstood version of Paul’s message. Our third assumption is that James and Paul do in fact agree. They both agree in their definition of saving faith. They both teach that a mere intellectual assent is not true faith, but a faith that works by love Gal. 5:6. We hope to show that because Paul and James are facing different enemies and this accounts for the apparent contradictions in their sayings. Paul is tackling legalists who are depending upon the law for salvation and so has to stress faith apart from works. James on the other hand is facing antinomians who have misinterpreted Paul’s gospel and is trying to demonstrate not salvation by works, but by a faith that works as the only type of saving faith. Both see faith as the root and works as the fruit, the different expressions we find in each one is due to the opposition they are facing. Paul therefore speaks negatively of the law because people are abusing it by using it as a stairway to heaven, whereas James speaks positively of the law because there were those who were neglecting obedience and holiness who claimed to be believers. We see something similar in Christ who speaks differently though not in a contradictory way to those who He is preaching to. To the self-righteous rich young ruler who thought he could be good enough Christ preached the law to him and gave him the impossible task of giving up all his money to expose his idol. To those who were under the heavy burdens of legalistic teaching, these He called to come to Him if they were weary and take a light burden. These might appear contradictory but instead they are different cases, likewise with Paul and James.

Our text is James 2:14-26. James follows a very basic and simple structure. Firstly, in v14- 17 James makes a statement about the true nature of saving faith, that it is a working faith. Secondly, in v18-19 James anticipates an objection to his definition and he quickly refutes it. Thirdly, in v20-26 James then demonstrates and proves his definition of saving faith, a faith that works, from the OT.